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Lessons Learned from a Hiking Incident

We recently received a hiking incident report from a leader in the New York-New Jersey Chapter of the AMC. The report describes an injury that occurred on a recent hike, what happened after that injury, and the essential equipment that the hike leaders and hikers did and did not have to help them through the subsequent hours spent on the trail awaiting a rescue. Below we include the original report (names have been elided). Following the report, we offer comments including a list of 10 essentials that each hiker should carry on every hike.

Incident Report: Hiker Injured on South Beacon Mountain

At 3 PM on November 17th, as we were descending from South Beacon Mountain, one of the participants slipped in leaves and fell. She immediately said that she heard something pop. We administered first aid by putting an ace bandage on her ankle and putting her back in her boot and seeing if we could assist-walk her out. We went roughly 100 yards and we all realized that there was no way she could walk. By 3:30PM, I called 911 to request a rescue and we gave our exact coordinates.

We were fortunate to have with us Richard D., who is the head of Wilderness First Aid for AMC New York New Jersey Chapter. Rich and I have been friends for over 30 years. We worked as a team and the group assisted. We immediately laid the injured hiker down on a foam pad and put her in a space blanket bivy sack. We then administered hot cocoa and water and awaited a rescue. We also sent John G., another leader in AMC, to go out to get my car so that we could ferry the hikers back to cars from a different location.

It took over four hours for the rescuers to find us. There were considerable mixed signals among the rescue groups. The Ranger was coming in from the Catskills and did not know the terrain. The ambulance crew was not familiar with the trails and could not find us. We were eventually assisted by a Park Police Officer who hiked up to where we were, and an ambulance crew came in on an ATV and were able to assist her and get her on a litter to take her out. Later, we learned that she broke her tibia.

At 6:45, I began the descent with our group and we were able to get out of the woods by 8:45 PM. At that time a park coordinator approached me quite angry. He was thinking that I had risked the group unnecessarily. He was very surprised when I told him that we called in the rescue at 3:30PM. He then said that he was annoyed with the 911 dispatcher for not helping with coordinating the rescue better. Either way, I appreciate all the help and support we got.

We were also fortunate to meet a gentleman who was on his motorbike who found us and then coordinated getting the rescue squad up to us because they didn't know where to go. We were also very lucky that it wasn't raining or colder and I was fortunate that the group was fairly experienced.

I had requested that the group all have high boots on before going on the trip. Many of them had inadequate headlamps and few of them had enough warm clothes to make it through the time we waited. I brought a lot of extra clothes and several of us gave out many of them to people in our group. I think all of them learned a lot from the experience. Upon our return, I told them all that it's important to make sure that you could stay all night out with what you have with you on a day trip. They saw firsthand why that's important last night.

Comments

We cannot assume that a hike will go well and end as planned. We could at any time get hurt, get lost, and be on the trail much longer than planned. Each of us needs to be prepared for ourselves as well as to help others get home safely. When hiking with a group we must be able to support each other. We often do hikes that leave us miles from the nearest road and are in areas where we can easily get turned around. Not all hikes are a “walk in the park.”

10 Essentials (from AMC) with notes added in boldface italics.

  1. Navigation You need to know where you are and how to get where you’re going. Carry a physical map of your area, not just a battery-powered option on your phone. Supplement it with a compass; even a simple model can provide a general orientation. An altimeter, GPS unit, or other device enhances convenience and location accuracy, but all are vulnerable to failure. Even in an in-town park like Kennedy Park, you can get lost easily and end up miles from your car.
  2. Sun Protection Don’t get burned. At a minimum carry a broad-spectrum sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB. Lightweight pants and long-sleeve shirts offer the best protection for prolonged exposure. Add in sunglasses, sun-protective lip balm, and a head-shading hat for maximum shielding. This category is more or less essential depending on conditions, but is often crucial for summer hiking excursions.
  3. Extra Clothing  Be prepared for unexpected changes in weather and an unplanned and chilly night out. Clothing selection will depend on location, season, and likely conditions. Be aware of expected minimums for overnight temperatures, and plan accordingly. Always carry a lightweight rain jacket and pants, and possibly a heavy-duty trash bag, for additional warmth and protection from the wind and precipitation. We recommend carrying extra socks and plastic bread bags to keep feet dry inside of boots that have become wet.
  4. Light Don’t get lost after dark. Many hikers go astray because they fail to bring a light. Basic headlamps are inexpensive and typically weigh less than 3 ounces.
  5. First-aid Kit A minimalist approach might include an ACE bandage, over-the-counter painkiller (e.g., ibuprofen), antibiotic ointment, blister treatment, and a selection of Band-Aids; more comprehensive kits can include a vast array of items. A small personal first aid kit is important especially with any meds you may need.
  6. Fire Carry the tools to create and sustain a flame. Waterproof or “stormproof” matches are generally a good choice (lighters are vulnerable to moisture). The no-fail option is a flint or other sparking device. To sustain the flame, you can buy many pre-made tinders or make your own. Vaseline-coated cotton balls are a good DIY option; they ignite easily and burn up to 5 minutes.
  7. Repair Kit and Tools Think knife and duct tape, arguably the two most versatile items for this category, followed closely by scissors. Supplement these with any crucial tools and parts you may need for your equipment. A knife, duct tape and scissors are helpful for the group.
  8. Extra Food Energy is crucial for comfort, safety, and survival. Pack a dense form of it—such as an energy bar—for times of need.
  9. Extra Water Hydration is beneficial and life-sustaining. Dehydration wears on your body and mind. Prolonged lack of water is a serious risk. Extra food and water is obvious but needs to be reiterated. On a hike, our bodies sometimes need more food and hydration than we do during a normal day. Consider how much you would need if the hike went longer than expected.
  10. Emergency Shelter A space blanket is a lightweight, compact, and inexpensive option that can help protect you from the elements and provide a small amount of additional warmth in the event of an unplanned night out. Other options are available, such as an ultralight tarp or bivy sack, but add ounces and cost. A space blanket weighs nothing, is cheap and can make a huge difference if one must wait for a rescue in the cold.

In addition, several additional items are highly recommended in every pack: a signaling device (whistle) to alert rescuers, water treatment (tablets, filter, etc.), and insect repellent if you are headed into bug central.

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